Gender and Sex Discrimination in the Workplace

Business man higher up stairs than business woman
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Gender discrimination, sometimes referred to as sex-based discrimination or sexual discrimination, is the unequal treatment of someone based on that person's sex. This behavior is a civil rights violation, and it's illegal in the workplace when it affects the terms or conditions of a person's employment.

It is addressed by federal law under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991, as well as other legislation. States also have their own laws making sex or gender discrimination illegal.

Sexual Harassment 

Sexual harassment falls under the umbrella of gender discrimination. According to company policy, a woman may be entitled to the same perks, advancements, pay and other benefits as her male counterpart, but behavior toward her in the workplace may be untenable and it's usually related to her gender.

You may be familiar with the 2017 #MeToo movement birthed by sexual harassment claims made against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein when actress Ashley Judd shared her story with major news outlets. Years earlier, Weinstein threatened Judd if she didn't agree to a sexual act.

While Hollywood's examples are extreme, this would still be the case if Judd were subjected to unwelcome touching or even offensive jokes aimed at her sex or sexual identity. And while a single joke may seem acceptable to some, repeated jokes on a daily or frequent basis constitute harassment. Harassment can also involve promises of advancement in exchange for sexual favors.

Not Just Men

The woman's harasser does not necessarily have to be a male. And the victim doesn't always have to be a woman—men can also be the target. Women can be just as guilty of sexual harassment. Similarly, the harasser does not necessarily have to be the woman's boss or supervisor. It's still harassment if a coworker or client is the source of the behavior and the company's management does nothing to put a stop to it.

What Constitutes Discrimination 

The proverbial "glass ceiling" is a classic example of workplace gender discrimination. This is the unwritten code that prevents women from holding certain senior positions and prevents them from advancing beyond a certain point because of gender, even if these women have the skills, talents, and qualifications that make them a good fit for senior or executive positions.

Promotional Bias 

The glass ceiling situation falls under the category of promotional bias. There are various reasons for this—having children being the main one. The glass ceiling movement, birthed in the late 1900s, was supposed to shatter the barrier (i.e., ceiling) that prevented women from moving up the corporate ladder. Since then, while women have come a long way, they're not there yet. 

In 1990, there were six women on the Fortune 500 list of CEOs. In 2017, there were 32 women. That's more women, but not enough—considering we're talking about 500 CEOs, which means that women still represent less than 7% of the Fortune 500 CEOs. 

But sexual discrimination goes further than CEOship. A man and woman may hold the exact same position and perform the same duties within a company, but the job title is different. The man may also be paid more, or he may be entitled to raises or promotions on a different schedule, and at a faster pace than his female colleagues.

Interview Questions

The interview process should be similar (if not the same) for both genders. But women are frequently expected to field different types of questions. Women are often asked if they have children or if they intend to have children.

These types of questions are illegal, and more importantly, have no bearing on a person’s ability to do a job well. However, many employers predicate hiring potential employees on the notion that they might need to take maternity leave. Employers need to consider that fathers (whether straight or gay) may need to take paternity leave. Neither gender should be asked the question.


All too often, terminations are handled with gender bias. It can be especially prevalent in male-dominated industries, such as manufacturing, where sexual harassment is not taken seriously. There are cases of women who have complained about gender bias and found themselves unemployed.

A female engineer at luxury car manufacturer Tesla, AJ Vandermeyden, accused the manufacturer of ignoring her complaints of sexual harassment and paying her less than her male counterparts. Then, she was fired in what her lawyer alleged was an act of retaliation. Vandermeyden, who went public, also claimed she was taunted and catcalled by male employees and that Tesla failed to address her complaints about the harassment, unequal pay and discrimination.

This is just one example, and there are many more people who experience sexual harassment in the workplace, every day. Most people aren't as brave as Vandermeyden was to speak up for fear of a lost job, blemished work record and/or a bad reputation in their industry.

How to Report Discrimination

If you or someone you know is a victim of gender discrimination in the workplace (male, female, bi or trans), write it down. Make sure you document what happened, who was involved, the date and time of the incident, and anyone who may be a witness. And be sure to ask them to also make notes on what happened.

Next, you'll need to report it. There is usually a chain you need to follow. First, speak to your supervisor to address the problem. If your supervisor is the cause of your complaint, go to that person's boss. If you feel the problem is not dealt with to your satisfaction, go to your company's human resources department.

If the situation persists, you can contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and file a charge of discrimination — a first step before you resort to suing your employer. But, before you sue, meet with an attorney to determine what the requirements are where you work. You may have as little as six months to file a charge and the EEOC typically must investigate your complaint first before you're permitted to take other civil action. 

The Bottom Line

Gender or sex-based discrimination is against the law. The target doesn't have to be a woman, just like the harasser isn't always a male. There is no place for this behavior in anyone's place of employment. If you or someone you know experiences it, be sure there is proper documentation and that the incident is reported. Remember, no one should ever have to experience gender or sex-based discrimination.